As the internet evolved into the prevalent medium of communication and obtaining information, it also spawned the rise of misinformation and online trolling. Today, users of the internet disguise themselves as their online avatar, and doesn’t shy away from spreading false news and meaningless propaganda with the sole intention of directing traffic and earning some quick money based on ad revenue. What’s even worse, is that groups of such people have come together to form organized troll agencies – usually backed by corporations and governments. One such troll group, known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), is based out of St. Petersburg, Russia and has been known to work directly for Vladimir Putin and other Russian oligarchs.
Since its inception in mid-2013, IRA has used online trolling as a medium to push pro-Kremlin propaganda to the rest of the world. It thrives to destabilize western democracy by adding fuel to the hatred of fringe groups. During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, IRA used online trolling to push forward anti-Clinton and pro-Trump messages to right-wing votes in the country. Their work involved creating memes based out of fictional stories – which were gulped down by Republicans in the U.S. due to their hatred of Clintons and Democrats. In the aftermath of the elections, Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate into Russian meddling in the elections. He indicted the IRA, along with two other organizations and thirteen individuals, with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft.
In fact, the IRA has publicly claimed to have created several fake user accounts on Facebook and Twitter to spread political propaganda. As the U.S. Congress dictated the CEO’s of these Tech companies to step up their verification process, they have taken steps to identify and delete such fraudulent accounts. Facebook alone has blocked 115 accounts – 30 on Facebook and 85 on Instagram – that allegedly tried to influence the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Twitter has also deleted hundreds of profiles thought to have been operated by IRA – all followed by millions of Americans.
Despite the effort to curb the IRA’s influence on western democracy, the agency keeps receiving more money from Kremlin to up their game. The IRA received a budget of $35 million in 2018, almost double that of in 2017. Despite the brave attempt of Facebook and Twitter, IRA managed to launch a new campaign in the aftermath of the U.S. midterm elections to spread distrust in the results. It declared victory over the U.S. midterm elections warning the “citizens of the United States of America” that their “intelligence agencies are powerless.”
“Despite all their efforts, we have thousands of accounts registered on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit spreading political propaganda,” read a statement attributed to the St. Petersburg-based organization. “These accounts work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to discredit anti-Russian candidates and support politicians more useful for us than for you.” The statement popped up on a website titled the “Internet Research Agency American Division”, and featured a clip art logo of a green goblin typing on a laptop. To add salt to the burn, it also posted a previously unseen list of 100 IRA Instagram accounts that Facebook confirmed as authentic.
Although Putin has publicly disassociated himself with IRA, global intelligence agencies have confirmed that he is secretly backing the troll farm to spread misinformation to the gullible western audience. As Tech corporations have proved their incapability to handle IRA’s influence, it’s up to the average Internet user to discredit factual information from fictionalized propaganda.